Return of prodigal bishop poses dilemma for church

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The Independent Online
THE BISHOP of Galway, Eamonn Casey, flew into London last night and landed the Catholic Church authorities with a major problem - what to do with him.

Lurid revelations six years ago of his clandestine affair with an American woman and his embezzlement of pounds 70,000 of diocesan funds (later repaid) paid to her after the birth of their son, traumatised the Irish Church and laid it open to accusations of rank hypocrisy in its moral teaching. That crisis worsened in the months that followed as more women came forward to reveal similar relationships with supposedly celibate clergy.

Casey's exile in Ecuador, imposed by the Church, ended last May when he completed a five-year contract working on a remote mission. Yesterday Irish radio reported that the 71- year-old bishop was leaving New York for London.

His ultimate destination remains uncertain because talks between the Congregation of Bishops in Rome and Casey on the terms of his return to Ireland have reached stalemate.

He is believed to be seeking a formal title and post within the Irish Church providing some form of pension.

The Church may only agree to this if he promises to stay away from the media, something he has proved conspicuously unable to do over the last 40 years. Irish bishops are divided on how much public profile he should be allowed. Some feel the prodigal priest could retrieve a positive image through good works.

According to Father Martin Clarke, a spokesman for the Irish bishops, they are "certainly sympathetic to his return, but obviously one of the issues is his public profile and his relationship with the media".

Father Clarke said: "This has been a major scandal in the Irish Church and has impacted in a very big way on the credibility of the Church in general and the bishops' conference in particular. Hopefully there might be a decision in the autumn but there is still a lot to be worked through."

Casey's friends say he believes he has been forgiven by the Irish public. As evidence he can point to opinion polls indicating most think he should be allowed to come back. Since news of his affair exploded in the Irish media in May 1992, judgement of errant clergy has been altered dramatically by a much worse crisis. Casey's misdemeanours paled into insignificance against those of a succession of paedophile priests jailed by Irish courts in the last five years.

But within the church hierarchy the after-shocks of the Casey scandal show no sign of abating. Cardinal Basil Hume recently rejected the possibility of the former Bishop taking up a post in a London diocese, even though Casey was highly successful when working there in the Sixties. Then he played a prominent role in radical initiatives to house the homeless, and helped to set up the charity Shelter.